Diversity in Summer Reading Lists | Diverse Books Survey

Take a deeper dive into the results of a question about summer reading lists in SLJ's Diverse Books Survey.

Mostly dead white people.

That is how educational media specialist Jennifer Bigioni describes the old summer reading list at Princeton (NJ) High School. Her school is not alone.

School librarians who took the SLJ Diverse Books Survey about the characters in the books on their summer reading lists. The most popular description (22 percent) was “somewhat” diverse. A combined 20 percent rated the characters on their summer reading lists as “very diverse” or “diverse.” Private schools have done a better job at bringing diversity into their summer reading lists, with 39 percent categorizing their lists as "diverse" or "very diverse."

At the direction of her supervisor, Bigioni assisted the English department in reworking the summer 2017 list. The supervisor was looking for diversity of authors and characters, and Bigioni also wanted a variety of styles added to the "very literature-based" options.

For this project, simply creating a list wasn't good enough.

"I literally gathered up the books so that we could meet," she says. "We met over maybe three or four days, looking through the books I brought."

The teachers made changes, choosing some of Bigioni's suggested titles and some of their own. They also opened it up to graphic novels, poetry, plays, and essays, and the list continues to evolve.

"We made a huge stride," says Bigioni. "It's not done yet."

One survey respondent said "school politics" keeps her from having a say in the middle school reading list. But at Hunter College Elementary School in New York City, not only does librarian Barbara Shostal have input into the summer reading list, but the students at the kindergarten through 6th grade school do as well. Every year, Shostal creates a summer reading list of the students' recommendations of their favorite book they read during the year—with four or five added by her. The list will also include book reviews by 2nd through 6th graders. For the most part, these are not books that were part of classroom work unless the student was particularly impacted by it.

Last year, Shostal incorporated Gene Leun Yang's Reading Without Walls initiative into a reading contest for her kids. As the Library of Congress's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature for 2016–17, Yang challenged children to read a book about a character that doesn't look or live like them, a topic they didn't know much about, or a book in a format they don't normally read for fun. The Hunter students generated a memorable summer list that year.

"That was a truly diverse list of books that, in addition to age and interest, reflected diversity of titles that students read," says Shostal, who adds that she's not usually a particular fan of these kinds of lists, because they quickly become outdated and often lean too heavily on the "classics." But she does recognize the need for a summer reading list and is frequently asked by parents for recommended reading. For those worried about losing the staples of the canon, Shostal and her colleagues also created a list of books that every student should read before they leave elementary school.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of the survey answers:

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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